Friday, March 29, 2002

Saudi Summitry - Will the U.S. run with the Arab League's peace proposal?

Beirut -- As Israel reeled from a suicide attack in a Netanya hotel on Wednesday, George W. Bush declared, "I condemn it in the most strongest of terms."

The president's double superlative may have emphasized his outrage, but as the retaliatory Israeli offensive against the Palestinian town of Ramallah underscored, much more than outrage will be expected of Bush in the coming months if Palestinians and Israelis are to make peace.

That is because the Netanya bomb went off just as one of the more interesting Arab League summits in recent memory stumbled towards an acrimonious end to its first day at a different hotel, Beirut's Phoenicia Inter-Continental.

On the table was a Saudi initiative, first floated by Crown Prince Abdullah to Thomas Friedman of The New York Times. It offered Israel normal relations and security in exchange for an Israeli withdrawal from all Arab lands occupied in June 1967, recognition of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as capital, and a "just solution to the Palestinian refugee problem."

The acrimony in Beirut was provoked by Lebanon's president, Emile Lahoud. As summit chairman his job was to call on Arab representatives to address the chamber. The Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat, confined in Ramallah, waited for his turn to speak by satellite link-up. Astonishingly, Lahoud ignored him. The Palestinian delegation walked out in protest. Others followed, and the summit looked set to collapse.

Saudi mediation soon turned things around and the conference was saved. However, what had occurred was a bold effort by Lebanon, no doubt at Syria's behest, to undermine the Saudi initiative by breaking up the summit. The Syrians oppose normal relations with Israel, fearing this will destabilize their unyielding, security-crazed political system.

The Bush administration will have to bear this in mind as it devises a response to the Saudi proposal, which the Arab League formally adopted yesterday. Whether the plan has been superceded by Israel's subsequent military actions in the West Bank remains to be seen. Even so, the plan's approval showed the Saudis could deliver a valuable offer from otherwise divided states that rarely miss an opportunity to disappoint. This should help paper over post-September 11 animosities between Washington and Riyadh.

Since it took office the Bush administration has been at sea over what to do in the Middle East. One problem is that it has based its indecisiveness on a sound premise: The Palestinians and Israelis are so far apart in their aspirations that diplomatic intervention is impossible. Consequently, the U.S. is better off containing the conflict until the parties are ripe for a deal.

However, the administration also insists that it alone can eventually breathe life into a regional settlement. As Vice President Dick Cheney told NBC news last week: "The fact of the matter is, there isn't anybody but us. Left to their own devices, the Israelis and the Palestinians have been unable to resolve [their] differences."

What Cheney did not mention is that the U.S. has nothing to offer, either. For months the administration has backed a two-step strategy that no one actually believes in: movement towards a ceasefire plan named for CIA director George Tenet, to be followed by an exchange of short-term confidence-building measures known as the Mitchell plan.

Neither plan addresses, nor was intended to address, a fundamental question: the kind of Palestinian state that will emerge. The Israeli prime minister, Ariel Sharon, wants at most to offer the Palestinians a small state in parts of the West Bank and Gaza at some ill-defined point in the future, with few if any concessions on Jerusalem and refugees.

The Palestinians, in turn, are beyond interim deals like the Tenet and Mitchell plans. They perceive their fight against Israel as a war of national liberation, with their minimal objectives the conditions outlined in the Saudi plan. Arafat refuses to crack down on his militants because he has been offered no ultimate political horizon. Without the contours of a final solution, Arafat believes that halting the Intifada will only benefit Israel.

He is not altogether wrong. When Bush took office he erred by accepting Bill Clinton's edict before his departure that the failure of two rounds of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations -- at Camp David in July 2000 and at Taba, Egypt, in January 2001 -- compelled him to declare null all agreements reached in both locations. The U.S. thus threw out the baby with the bathwater, abandoning even Palestinian and Israeli points of convergence.

The irony is that both gatherings pushed Israelis and Palestinians closer to a final peace deal than they had ever been before. By discarding points of agreement, Clinton and Bush deleted the memory of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiating track. This also prevented the U.S. from defining what a mutually acceptable peace settlement might look like, with the details to be filled in by the parties themselves.

Thanks to the Saudis a political horizon now exists. What emerged from the Beirut conclave was an inventive offer that defied the tide of anger in the region aroused by the Intifada. Pointedly, it was directed at Israeli public opinion and came accompanied by a most amiable Saudi interpretation of the type of "normal relations" the Arabs promised Israel.

In an interview with CNN's Christiane Amanpour, the Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, noted: "We envision a relationship between the Arab countries and Israel that is exactly like the relationship between the Arab countries and any other state." He defended Israel's right to live within its 1967 borders in "serenity".

By welcoming the proposal, the Bush administration may have found an endgame to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nothing in the Saudi (now Arab) proposal was new, yet everything has changed. The Arabs are bluntly offering Israel what it has always demanded. If Israel refuses, its quarrel may no longer be merely with its neighbors, but also with the U.S.

Friday, March 1, 2002

Spy Watch - Behind closed doors at the National Security Agency

Body of Secrets: Anatomy of the Ultra-Secret National Security Agency From the Cold War Through the Dawn of a New Century, by James Bamford, New York: Doubleday, 721 pages, $29.95

Osama bin Laden is a dutiful stepson. This mundane bit of information took on particular importance following the September 11 attacks against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. As James Bamford reminds us in Body of Secrets, his latest book on the shadowy National Security Agency (NSA), officials at the organization would routinely play intercepted telephone conversations between bin Laden and his stepmother to congressmen in order to acquire more funds for eavesdropping activities.

As Bamford could not have known when he wrote his book, the passage highlights what is both right and wrong in America's reliance on communications intelligence. One such call, taped in early September, allegedly constitutes part of the evidence that bin Laden was involved in the mass homicides in Washington and New York. At the same time, the United States, despite its ability to listen in on its arch foe, was unable to prevent the attacks from taking place, underscoring the chasm between the NSA's technological prowess and the intelligence community's capacity to absorb, analyze, and act on information gleaned.

The NSA was formally established on October 24, 1952, to replace the shaky and ineffective Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA). The United States had begun collecting signals intelligence (or Sigint) before World War II, but had avoided creating a single authority to handle it all. Instead, the armed forces services collected Sigint separately, and even when the AFSA was set up to combine these efforts, the services maintained control over their specific code breaking and intercept activities. This fragmentation proved catastrophic during the Korean War -- the North Korean invasion took the U.S. completely by surprise -- and led to the NSA's urgent creation. Though the agency reports to the secretary of defense, it became early on a semi-sovereign entity.

The NSA is the largest of the U.S. intelligence agencies, with a staff of some 38,000 people, an additional 25,000 non-staff personnel in listening posts, and an annual budget estimated at $7.3 billion. It is headquartered in an enormous complex known by some agency employees as Crypto City, located off the Baltimore-Washington Parkway near Annapolis Junction in Maryland. The atmosphere there is reminiscent of the Polish science fiction novelist Stanislaw Lem's outlandish The Building in his Memoirs Found in a Bathtub (1971), where spies search for secret meanings in Shakespeare and one character exclaims, "A cracked code remains a code. An expert can peel away layer after layer. It's inexhaustible. One digs ever deeper into more and more inaccessible strata. That journey has no end."

To Bamford's credit, he single-handedly has done a considerable share of excavation into the NSA's inaccessible strata. He first did so in his much-acclaimed The Puzzle Palace (1982). The numerous government documents he managed to obtain for Body of Secrets confirm the earlier book's underlying premise: The NSA is both a remarkable and disquieting embodiment of the awesome power of the American government. While Bamford never draws explicit political conclusions from this observation, he is acutely sensitive to the illegal behavior an institution like the NSA can help generate. Granted partial access to NSA officials, he is also rarely taken in by his subject or sources, constantly playing off inconsistencies in quotes by some agency members against those from others. This is laudable when one has been provided unique information, as Bamford was, on an ultra-secretive organization -- one increasingly conscious, however, of the advantages of partial transparency after decades of stony silence.

One of Bamford's most damning accusations is that the NSA failed to do what it was mainly designed to do: break high-level Soviet ciphers. In the immediate aftermath of World War II, the U.S. Sigint effort had some sterling successes. A team of experts, known collectively by the codename TICOM, was able to get hold of the USSR's "Fish" cipher machine, one of which had been captured by the Germans, and therefore read Soviet communications. The system worked until 1948 when, overnight, the USSR's encrypted lines went dead. (An AFSA linguist, William Weisband, was suspected of having warned Moscow, but he was never convicted.)

The array of the NSA's duties is vast and complex. Though high-level Russian codes remained unbroken, the NSA had greater success penetrating and unscrambling Soviet communications traffic (Comint, in the professional jargon). It also gathered much vital electronic intelligence, or Elint, meaning those signals put out by radar, missiles, and other devices. When the Cold War ended, the NSA shifted its focus away from the former Soviet Union. Though the NSA eavesdropped on most countries from the moment it began operating, the agency's principal mission had changed by the mid-1990s and it spent most of its time listening in on friendly states and allies.

Some allies would prove to be more equal than others. One of the peculiar byproducts of the NSA's activities was the formation of an Anglo-Saxon fraternity of snoops, UKUSA, named for a communications intelligence agreement originally signed between the NSA and its British counterpart. The grouping, which now includes the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand, is sometimes inaccurately known as Echelon, for the software program integrating the Sigint capabilities of the member states.

As Bamford writes, the idea behind Echelon was that "agencies would be able to submit targets to one another's listening posts and, likewise, everyone would be allowed to share in the take -- to dip their electronic ladles into the vast cauldron of intercepts and select what they liked."

Bamford doesn't take kindly to this invasion of the privacy of others, whether the others are foreign states or individuals. He discerns threatening patterns that can, in extreme cases, have a nefarious impact on domestic American life. The NSA is legally barred from spying within the continental United States, or even, in most cases, on American citizens. Nevertheless, it has on numerous occasions engaged in domestic surveillance, leading in one noted case in the late 1990s to the arrest of Nasser Ahmad, an Egyptian immigrant, and his detention in solitary confinement for three years. Only when Ahmad was finally allowed to see a portion of the secret evidence against him was he able to gain his release.

Such misuse of power has always lurked in the NSA's past, even as elected officials have tried to expand its legal range of activities. Richard Nixon, for instance, tried to empower the NSA to spy inside the U.S. (The effort was derailed by, of all people, J. Edgar Hoover, who didn't want anyone competing with the FBI.) Yet one of the most infamous examples of political manipulation by a branch of the U.S. government did not directly involve the NSA. Bamford wisely includes a discussion of the benignly named Operation Northwoods. He suggests that the political system that could spawn the NSA was also one that could take the mania with communism to the repulsive extremes revealed by that scheme.

Northwoods was a secret and illegal plan drawn up by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, chaired by Gen. Lyman Lemnitzer, during the Kennedy administration. Bamford succeeds in showing that all those '60s and '70s films about generals with a screw loose and a taste for Armageddon weren't entirely fictional. The idea was to provoke violent incidents inside the United States, including murders, bombings, and hijackings, that could then be pinned on Cuba, thus justifying military action to overthrow Fidel Castro. Northwoods was ultimately rejected by Kennedy's defense secretary, Robert McNamara, but the fact that the plan could have reached the upper echelons of the administration reveals that Kennedy's top brass felt the president could stomach considerable misconduct.

Like all bureaucracies, the NSA is in perpetual search of more funding to generate ever-larger amounts of information with less and less practical use. To be fair, it is not the NSA's brief to analyze what it accumulates -- that is the role of the CIA and various government departments, and their respective intelligence arms. In the past, notably during the Vietnam War, the agency's fine intelligence was simply ignored by those to whom it was directed, most prominently Gen. William Westmoreland. (The NSA warned, for example, of the 1968 Tet Offensive.) The problem is that the volume of information gathered by the NSA today far outreaches the intelligence community's capability to process it. As former CIA director Robert Gates put it: "Sometimes I think we just collect intelligence for the thrill of collecting it....We have the capacity to collect mountains of data that we can never analyze. We just stack it up."

Despite the NSA's colossal budget and its tendency toward information overkill, the agency's deputy director for services, Terry Thompson, could complain in 1999: "One of the reasons we don't get more support on the Hill for the budget is that we don't have a strong lobby in the defense industry....We spend our money on four hundred or four thousand different contracts and it's hard to get a critical mass of people who want to go down and wave the flag for NSA when budget deliberations are going on." Thompson was speaking in the wake of successive budget cuts at the NSA, so perhaps he had a point. But then one gets a distinct sense that he would consider any amount of money for the NSA to be somehow too little.

Whatever its faults, the NSA has suffered a fair share of casualties in its relatively short history. The most costly episode, which Bamford describes in detail, was the Israeli attack against the NSA spy ship, USS Liberty, off the Sinai Peninsula during the 1967 Arab-Israeli war. The Liberty incident led to the death of 35 crew members, but was long ago swept under the rug of U.S.-Israeli relations. Bamford tears down the official explanation, that it was all an accident.

He writes that NSA officials with access to secret intercepts from the episode "were virtually unanimous in their belief that the attack was deliberate." Liberty crew members noted that during the attack, the Israelis first went after the ship's communications apparatus, which required knowledge of its makeup. According to intercepted radio traffic, the Israelis positively identified the Liberty and the markings painted on the ship's side. In contrast, the attacking airplanes were unmarked, undermining the Israeli claim that their pilots confused the Liberty with an Egyptian vessel, one that they, incidentally, knew to be much slower than the moving U.S. ship. Bamford's hypothesis is that the Liberty recorded radio communications between Israeli units discussing the extensive execution of Egyptian prisoners-of-war. He believes the Israelis sought to destroy the ship to cover up their war crimes.

Some have questioned Bamford's allegation. For example, New York Times reviewer James Finder disingenuously wrote that the Egyptian POW theory was based on slender evidence, and mentioned a single Israeli journalist as Bamford's source. In fact Bamford cites three sources, all Israelis. One of them was a participant in the attack and another was an eyewitness. The third, an Israeli military historian, concluded (on the basis of interviews with dozens of soldiers who themselves had killed prisoners) that as many as 1,000 Egyptians were shot. Bamford's argument is surely plausible, as anyone who has surveyed a half-century of Israel's wartime behavior will admit. The only part of Bamford's theory that is dubious -- and here Finder's protest is in order -- is that it would have been foolish for Israel to cover up one massacre by another. Yet where Finder sees this as evidence of Israeli blamelessness, readers will conclude that an explanation for the undeniably deliberate assault must lie elsewhere.

The last two chapters of Body of Secrets are devoted to detailed descriptions of Crypto City, of life at the NSA, and of past progress in the organization's successive supercomputer programs. Those parts don't make for particularly compelling reading, but they represent a major accomplishment, since Bamford is the first reporter to ferret out such details, which have been secret for decades. Published in a year when the U.S. Congress sought -- and then postponed -- passage of an official secrets act that would have criminalized the unauthorized disclosure of any type of classified information by federal employees, Body of Secrets is a valuable reminder of the enduring siren song of concealment, the enemy of all true democracies.